University of New Mexico basketball coach Paul Weir has a confession to make.
When asked recently about the development of Pascal Siakam, one of three finalists for the NBA Most Improved Player award to be announced Monday night, the Lobos’ front man had this to say: “If we’re being completely honest, no, I never thought he’d become the NBA player he is right now. I knew he could make it in the league, sure, but to see him become what he has is one of those things I’m happy to be surprised about.”
The three finalists for Most Improved Player are Siakam, De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings and D’Angelo Russell from the Brooklyn Nets. The NBA will announce the winners for all of its awards in a nationally televised show Monday night on TNT.
Weir recruited the 6-foot-9 forward Siakam to New Mexico State in 2013. A native of Cameroon by way of Canada, Siakam’s first season with the Aggies in 2014-15 saw him develop quickly and by time his NMSU career was over he’d started 61 of 68 games, averaged 16.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Taken by Toronto in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, he blossomed into a budding star while helping the Raptors to the world title last week.
He more than doubled his scoring average this season, dropping in 16.9 points with 6.9 rebounds while starting 79 of the 80 regular season games.
“For me to sit back and watch him do what he’s been doing is such a great feeling,” said Weir, a Toronto native who once coached high school ball and was a starting guard at York University. “I’ve been a Raptors fan since they day it all started so to have one of my guys bring that kind of emotion to a team and city I love, it’s amazing.”
u u u
It would cost you just a shade under a grand to get on an airplane with a round-trip ticket to Minneapolis, a guaranteed seat at a July 10 soccer match featuring the New Mexico United and a swag bag of goodies that come with memories of a lifetime.
Thanks to the generosity of one of the team’s sponsors, First Financial Credit Union, the entire thing will cost just $249 per person.
The United announced the deal on its social media platforms a few days ago. The team secured a flight out of Albuquerque but cautioned that space is limited and fans can only purchase two travel packages at a time. It includes transportation to and from the game as well as the designated hotel. The cost of lodging and meals is not included.
Tickets go on sale at noon Tuesday, so if you’re interested in watching New Mexico’s feel-good sports story of the year, the United take on Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United FC in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Allianz Field in St. Paul the night of July 10, best make plans to hold off on the Tuesday lunch hour for just a few minutes.
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Speaking of the United, their residency atop the United Soccer League’s Western Conference standings may be over for quite a while. The team’s run through the Open Cup tournament has shifted some of the focus off the regular season games of the United Soccer League’s Championship series and the United have lost two of their last three matches as a result.
After Saturday’s draw in Los Angeles, New Mexico had slipped into a tie for third place alongside El Paso and six points behind first-place Phoenix. The team had started the season 6-1-7 but is 0-2-1 since becoming immersed in the latter rounds of the Open Cup.
United head coach Troy Lesense has rotated a number of reserves into the starting lineup for recent USL matches in an attempt to keep the team’s top players fresh for the Open Cup. An in-season tournament that brings together clubs from multiple levels of the professional game from around the country, the massive event has been trimmed from about 100 teams down to the final eight.
New Mexico is one of just two non-MLS teams still alive, joining fellow USL Championship side St. Louis. The remaining six teams are from the MLS. The team that advances furthest from each of the lower leagues receives a cash bonus while the overall champion gets $300,000 and the runner-up gets $100,000.
In other words, it’s nice to stay in first place halfway through the season, but it literally pays to focus on an Open Cup run.